Over at the Oceanside United Reformed Church website, I’ve published a small article/booklet, “Is God a Genocidal Maniac?” The subject is how to read texts like 1 Samuel 15, in which the Lord commanded Saul to eradicate the land of the Amalekites. I conclude with application, utilizing William Ames’ rules for singing the imprecatory Psalms.
Tolle lege! Take up and read!
Posted on 15. Jan, 2014 by Mark Jones.
Very few Christian theologians can say they’ve made a distinct contribution to Christian theology on any one doctrine. Augustine or Tertullian on the Trinity come to mind; Anselm on the atonement showed remarkable insight; and Luther on justification was momentous. Calvin on the Holy Spirit was hugely significant; indeed, historically it has been Reformed theologians who have been the theologians of the Holy Spirit! These men may not have been the first to speak on the aforementioned doctrines, but their contributions to particular doctrines was so significant that the doctrine in question was substantially bettered.
Having studied the Puritans, I’m sometimes asked for my assessment of the best Puritan thinkers. My heart typically moves in the direction of Thomas Goodwin, since he was my first love (i.e., my PhD topic), and his work on the Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth has been the most influential book I’ve ever read.
But there is little doubt that John Owen stands head and shoulders above his British contemporaries. It isn’t even close. Rutherford, Sibbes, Twisse, Goodwin, and Manton, for example, are mere peons compared to the man with Spanish leather boots. This is true because Owen was able to make not just one, but several significant contributions to Christian theology, in an age where there were brilliant theological minds all around him, including the Continent (e.g., Turretin, Cocceius, Voetius).
Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, here are several areas where Owen made a significant contribution to Christian theology:
1. His commentary on Hebrews.
In Lee Gatiss’s excellent PhD dissertation on Owen’s commentary, he shows
“how Owen was at the leading edge of biblical studies in his day, applying the most advanced contemporary tools of the trade to study of Hebrews by, for example, interacting vigorously with the humanistic and anti-dogmatic interpretative methods of Grotius and the Socinians, as well as applying Jewish sources (such as the Talmud, Targums, and medieval rabbinical commentaries) to the study of the New Testament. A lengthy excursus in his commentary on the controversial subject of covenant theology is shown to be highly sensitive to the details of the Greek text of Hebrews notwithstanding the fact that his conclusions pit Owen against the majority of Reformed theologians on this score and more in line with those he elsewhere opposes. By examining Owen’s interaction with Roman Catholic commentators and Roman Catholic exegesis, it also shows that he was not more interested in dogma than exegesis, but was keen to allow Scripture to speak for itself rather than imposing alien dogmatic frameworks upon it for the sake of inter-confessional polemics.”
I’ve looked closely at other commentaries on Hebrews from the Reformation (Calvin) and Post-Reformation periods (Gouge), and nothing comes close to Owen’s monumental work on Hebrews.
2. His understanding of the relationship between the two natures of Christ.
A number of theologians have picked up on the pervasive role of the Spirit in the life of Christ, but they aren’t quite sure what to do with the role of the Spirit in terms of how the two natures of Christ relate to each other.
In a rather good essay on this topic (“Reformed Varieties of the Communicatio Idiomatum”), Stephen Holmes maintains that Owen developed “a distinctive form of Reformed Christology.” In one shocking statement, Owen argues that “the only singular immediate act of the person of the Son on the human nature of the Son on the human nature was the assumption of it into subsistence with himself…” (3:160).
In fact, all other actings of God in the person of the Son towards the human nature were voluntary”, not necessary (3:161), because “there was not transfusion of the properties of one nature into the other…” (Ibid). There is a great deal more to say on this topic (which I will be dealing with in a forthcoming volume on Christology), but Owen’s ability to understand how the two natures of Christ relate to one another represented a significant breakthrough in Christological thought.
3. His Christological re-orientation of the beatific vision.
As Suzanne McDonald makes a compelling argument in the Ashgate Companion to John Owen that Owen gave the church a “significantly re-oriented doctrine of the beatific vision, with Christ at the centre of our beholding of God in eternity, as he is of our beholding of God’s glory now.”
One only has to compare Owen with Aquinas and Turretin to see how radically Christocentric Owen’s version of the beatific vision was. To be sure, others (Goodwin and Manton) spoke of beholding the physical Christ with our eyes in heaven, but they did not consider the topic to the degree that Owen did. Fascinatingly, Jonathan Edwards did not follow Owen here because Edwards held that the beatific vision could not be with the eyes (see his sermon, “The Pure in Heart Blessed”).
4. His defense of particular redemption
The first major defense – and to my mind, still the best – of limited atonement came from John Owen. Owen cuts a pretty lonely figure in his defense of the atonement, even in Reformed circles. Later theologians such as Dabney and Hodge would end up disagreeing with Owen’s view. But, even in Owen’s day, there were two Latin words that were determinative for the nature and extent of the atonement: tantundem and idem. Ursinus, Ball, Baxter, Manton, and Mastricht were not with Owen on this point. Edwin Tay explains in the Ashgate volume:
“The law demanded punishment of the offender, but in the case of the atonement, Christ took the place of the offender on the basis of a divine act constituting satisfaction to be by way of substitution and payment of the idem. In Baxter’s view, Owen concedes the case to Grotius precisely because the law did not specify that Christ was to be the one threatened. It thus follows that the payment rendered by Christ, according to Baxter, is not the idem but tantundem. For Baxter, the person punished and the penalty incurred was of one piece as far as the execution of the law was concerned.”
Baxter argued that the idem implies ipso facto. For Baxter, the satisfaction of Christ is not ipso facto, and therefore not idem, because the satisfaction of Christ takes place in the context of a covenant. It is thus, sub termino. For Owen, Christ’s death (impetration) takes place by the idem, and ipso facto the moment that Christ died. However, the application (a distinct but related category to impetration) happens sub termino.
As Gert van den Brink notes in his essay on impetration and application (again, in the Ashgate volume):
“That justification is the immediate effect of Christ’s death does not mean that justification took place at that very moment of his death. On the contrary, because his death is a moral cause, other causes (such as faith) are needed as well. Speaking of moral causes creates the possibility of saying that Christ caused the believers’ justification immediately, as well as saying that nobody is justified as long as there is no act of faith. Owen underlines the certainty of salvation by his close connection of impetration and application, whereas he stresses the importance of the human response by calling Christ’s death a moral cause.”
His understanding of the nature and extent go together, a point many people miss in debates on the extent of the atonement.
The point is: Owen was a pioneer in articulating the definitive defence of limited atonement. I’m persuaded that he was able to do so because of several factors. His brilliance is one; but the brilliance of Baxter (and, despite what people might think, Baxter was as close to Owen as anyone of his time) pushed Owen to make highly sophisticated arguments that he may not have made had Baxter not been a thorn in his side.
I could go on.
Owen’s treatise (vol. 5) on justification is one of the finest book-length defenses of sola fide ever written.
Owen’s work on the eternal covenant of redemption is bettered by no other writer of his time.
Has anyone written a better work on communion with God and its private and corporate implications?
Plus, when the phrase “mortification of sin” comes into your mind (as I hope it is your practice, Rom. 8:13), which theologian do you think of first? (see vol. 6). I trust not the “spin doctors,” Carl Trueman, Todd Pruitt, and Aimee Byrd.
Let’s not forget, Owen wrote massive tomes on the Holy Spirit (vol. 3) and perseverance (vol. 11).
And I think, finally, that his defense of the necessity of the atonement (vol. 10) might still be the best there is.
One of the best things a young, aspiring theologian can do is to get into the mind of a great theologian by devouring his works again and again. I doubt I’ll ever grow tired of Owen or stop learning from him.
In fact, apart from Augustine, I think a strong argument can be made, based on the evidence above, for saying that the finest theological mind God has given to the church is the Prince of the Puritans: John Owen. What do you think?
Posted on 08. Jan, 2014 by Mark Jones.
These reviews were supposed to appear on Reformation21, but I was also asked by them to review John Frame’s new Systematic Theology. My review of Frame took precedence in the line-up of reviews, so without waiting another month and a half for these reviews to appear, I’ve decided to post my reflections on these two books here.
As a pastor I am always keen to commend good books written by women. Of the several books I’m reading during the holiday season, I will begin by reviewing two recent books by P&R Publishing: Housewife Theologian by Aimee Byrd and Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid. In the coming weeks I also hope to review Rosaria Butterfield’s book, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, which was the most moving book I read in 2013.
“This book is for women,” so begins Aimee Byrd. Thus, as a man, I may not be the best person to review this book, but I am a pastor, and therefore welcome good, theologically accurate books for women. In Housewife Theologian, Aimee Byrd attempts to bring these two words together to provide a guide for how women, particularly housewives, can understand the world in a theological way since all Christians are necessarily theologians (p. 12).
This book discusses how women are to think theologically about womanhood (ch. 1), beauty (ch. 2), knowledge (ch. 3), sexuality (ch. 4), doctrine (ch. 5), hospitality (ch. 6), service (ch. 7), sin (ch. 8), and idolatry (ch. 9). Moreover, the relationship between church and culture (see chs. 9-12) also receives consideration by the author. These topics are discussed in twelve chapters – the perfect number for a group of women to meet together once a month for a year, or however they see fit. The book can be used with a journal, and each chapter has questions at the end for further discussion, though the author (intentionally, I think) does not provide answers in her book to all of the study questions that she raises. Not surprisingly, there are many questions that I was totally unable to relate to as a man (for example, see first question at the top of p. 92).
As far as theological issues go, there are no areas where I find myself in strong disagreement with the author. In fact, there are places where I learned a lot, and I’m thankful for a woman’s perspective on the topics raised in this book. I’m grateful that she sees theology as practical (p. 157), a point that needs repeating often. The author displays a great deal of learning, not only by addressing topics such as the beatific vision (pp. 47–49) in relation to beauty (ch. 2), but also by quoting from authors such as Augustine, Jeremiah Burroughs, C.S. Lewis, and Colin Gunton. (Maybe the discussion of divine poēsis is a little too pretentious and obtuse, see pp. 98, 109, 161). A bibliography at the end would have helped show how wide-ranging the author’s research is!
Certain chapters will appeal to readers more than others: it all depends on whether you are a man or woman, and your own context, personality, etc. I deeply appreciated her discussion, “Your Real Self-Image” (pp. 73–74), where she notes that many housewives are sometimes tempted to acknowledge they are homemakers, but they “also do such and such” (p. 73). Moreover, she adds, “In our feminist culture, it is not savvy to define ourselves through our marital relationship with a man” (pp. 73–74). Her chapter on hospitality (ch. 6) was very helpful, too, and in it the author humorously claims to make a “killer chocolate chip cookie” (p. 124). On a more serious note, she also addresses hospitality in terms of its biblical-theological context, and all that this demands, including the need to refuse such to false teachers (p. 127). Incidentally, my wife doesn’t wear perfume, or make-up, or lip-gloss, so she was unable to identify with Byrd’s modus operandi toward the end of page 127. However, I’m sure her husband Matt is happy with her beautifying habits.
The final three chapters bring home the importance of connecting what it means to be a “housewife theologian” in the context of the church and the world. A failure to clearly drive home the ecclesiological implications for being a godly housewife would be no small error. But Byrd does not make this mistake, and readers will find her last three chapters theologically enriching as she draws on several Reformed thinkers – well, not Mr. Stellman anymore (see p. 190), regrettably – to highlight that our identity, whether as a woman or a man, is in Christ in the context of the church. Some readers might not agree with her understanding of the two kingdoms, though I do not think she overstated matters.
The final chapter (12) points out that the Christian life is not easy, but a costly one that housewives particularly will understand. This especially is the case as they try to live and think theologically in a world where such remains rare phenomenon indeed. For that reason, I am happy to commend this book to both pastors and women as a faithful guide on Christian living.
Based on the Amazon “reviews” and from P&R themselves, Duguid’s book is selling very well, and its reception has been overwhelmingly positive. In the book, she aims to help Christians deal with their struggles, sins, defeats, etc., in several ways. First, she attempts to look at sin and sanctification in a manner faithful to the framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith and their successors (p. 18). More specifically, Duguid uses John Newton’s letters as a tool to try to diagnose and solve the various problems that consistently beset God’s people in their different stages of the Christian life. A major theme that dominates the book concerns how God can use our sin for good, and how we should view our sin in light of how God views our sin. God remains in full control of every detail in our lives, and we should remember that glorious reality.
Duguid is candid and open about her sins. In almost all the chapters, she gives us insight into her specific sins. She helpfully notes that many churches today are not very good at being open about our sins (p. 26). In other words, we sing Newton’s hymn, “Amazing Grace,” but practically deny the truths about ourselves contained in the song by our refusal to be more open about our failures.
Chapters 2–4 address Newton’s distinction concerning the different stages of Christians. There are “baby” Christians who have certain struggles (ch. 2), Christians who are “maturing” (ch. 3), and finally there are mature Christians (ch. 4). Each Christian has different struggles and views of the gospel. Thus, the remedies to each type of Christian are different. Incidentally, the author admits that she is not a “mature Christian” (p. 68), but instead “a maturing believer” (p. 69). The difference between the “baby” Christian and the “mature” believer is good theology, according to Duguid. The “mature” believer thinks differently about his/her sin, Christ, and the world to come (see pp. 48, 72–73).
The remainder of the book looks at key issues that Christians should understand well: God’s purposes for his people (ch. 6), our sin (ch. 7), God’s grace (chs. 8, 11–12), and the pain (and often futility) of our struggles (chs. 9–10). Throughout the book, the reader is confronted not only with the wisdom of Newton, but also the theology of Duguid.
The topics that Duguid confronts are the most sensitive theological issues that pastors and counselors deal with on a weekly basis. Thus, good answers to the problems of sin, guilt, discouragement, etc., are to be welcomed. Regrettably, this book is filled with too many theological errors for me to commend it as a faithful guide to the problems of sin and grace.
First, in the Preface, Duguid raises the question, “What if growing in grace is more about humility, dependence, and exalting Christ than it is about defeating sin?” (p. 18). This is a false dichotomy. Humility requires the mortification of our vicious pride. Dependence requires the mortification of our innate self-dependence. Just loving Christ is not enough; to love him we must mortify other loves (self, the world, etc.). When we love Christ we are able to mortify our sin; and as we do so we are better able to love Christ. John Owen’s marvelous treatise on Romans 8:13 provides a more reliable guide on this point.
Second, Duguid critiques the idea that sanctification is 100% God and 100% us. She calls this “poor math” and “poor theology” (p. 124). Why? Because God always does his 100% perfectly, which means the reason we are failing is entirely our fault! She may be right about the poor math, but her critique of the theological truth is less than compelling. Professor Richard Gaffin has recently argued for the 100% + 100% principle in his book, By Faith, Not by Sight: “Involved here is, as it could be put, the ‘mysterious math’ of God’s covenant…whereby 100% + 100% = 100%. Sanctification is 100% the work of God and, just for that reason, it is to engage 100% of the activity of the believer” (p. 83). Incidentally, the reader is left wondering what “equation,” if any, Duguid thinks is the more biblically satisfying one: 50% God + 50% us? Is God not doing his 100% perfectly? Are we supposed to give 100%? Not only Gaffin but also many Reformed luminaries from the past, such as Jonathan Edwards (“But God does all, and we do all”) and Charles Spurgeon (“paradoxes are not strange things in Scripture, but are rather the rule than the exception”), note the “mysterious math” of sanctification.
Third, Duguid’s suggestion that God cannot be disappointed in you (p. 48) or your level of sanctification is not only unfaithful to the Bible and the Westminster Confession (11.5), but also Newton – the person who she is allegedly following (cf. Works, 2:488–89, 598, 3:625, 6:322, 467). There is a sort of “hyper-decretalism” that runs throughout the book (e.g., pp. 125, 205). Duguid affirms that “spiritual growth is not up to us” (p. 48) – a statement that is open to potential misunderstanding. The New Testament is filled with imperatives commanding us to “grow spiritually” (2 Peter 1:5; 3:18; Eph. 4:15; 1 Peter 2:2), while affirming that growth comes from God (Col. 2:19; Phil. 2:12-13). This is the “mysterious math” of sanctification that Duguid appears to reject.
Her point that God cannot be angry with us (p. 210) is an idea gaining popularity in some Reformed circles. Duguid contends that the Father does not punish us for our sin, “nor is he angry with us” (211). True, God is not angry with us in the sense that he is always angry with us, or to the point of condemnation (Rom. 8:1); but that does not mean that he is never angry with his children or that he never punishes them for their sins. Christ was displeased with the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3, just as he was with David (2 Sam. 11:27), and also certain Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:30-32). John Flavel distinguishes between “vindictive punishments” and “paternal castigations” – the latter, not the former, are true of Christians. John Calvin speaks of God being “wondrously angry” towards his children, not because he is disposed to hate them, but because by “frightening” them he humbles his people and brings them to repentance.
The idea running throughout the book that God is not disappointed in our sanctification rings hollow. This contention emanates from the “hyper-decretalism” mentioned above – a sort of fatalism. Indeed, God is not disappointed in our justification. And God is never frustrated in his purposes for us. But God may be disappointed in our holiness if we go through seasons whereby we presume upon his grace, neglect the ordinary means of grace, or sin willfully and grievously. When I repent I’m in a real sense disappointed in my lack of holiness – and rightly so! If God is never disappointed in his child’s lack of holiness, then he isn’t actually a very good Father (see Heb. 12), and we are not actually responsible agents in our Christian life.
Fourth, Duguid also presents a misguided view of the Holy Spirit’s goal in our sanctification. She contends that if the Holy Spirit’s “chief work” in sanctification is making us more and more sin-free, “then he isn’t doing a very good job”; after all, she claims there are unbelievers who are “morally superior” to Christians (p. 30). This view makes a mockery of the New Testament’s teaching on the moral difference between Christians and non-Christians (see Col. 1:21–22; Eph. 2:1–10; Rom. 6; 8:1–14), and it says things about the Spirit’s work that I certainly would not. She contrasts this (wrong) view of the Holy Spirit’s role in sanctification with her idea that if “the goal of sanctification is actually growing in humility and greater dependence upon Christ, then the Holy Spirit is doing an excellent job” (p. 61). So what if I am not living in great dependence upon Christ? Am I doing a bad job or is the Holy Spirit doing a bad job or is it both our fault (i.e., the “mysterious math”)? Her book is written because people do not seem to be depending on Christ or growing in humility. But why write a book on this topic if the Holy Spirit is doing an excellent job in this area? Again, the two views of sanctification she contrasts become false dichotomies. They are actually the same thing, viewed from different angles.
In connection with this, the book contains some rather strange statements, particularly page 29. Consider the following: “If the sovereign God’s primary goal in sanctifying believers is simply to make us more holy, it is hard to explain why most of us make only ‘small beginnings’ on the road to personal holiness in this life” (p. 29). What, then, is the point of sanctification if it is not being made more holy (i.e., like Jesus)? The Scriptures are clear on this matter (see Col. 1:22; Rom. 8:29; 1 Peter 2:24; Eph. 1:4; 2 Cor. 3:18).
In conclusion, the book starts out with a good idea: how can we, with Newton’s pastoral help, deal with the various struggles in the Christian life, especially the serious problem of indwelling sin. And how do Christians deal with these problems in their different stages of their walk. Newton as a guide remains safe and reliable. But Duguid ventures too far away from Newton to her own theology – and drastically at times, it seems to me – without always giving proper citations for the ideas she is attributing to Newton (pp. 49–50). Whatever merits exist in this book, the drawbacks are too significant to allow me to recommend it, though others (on the back cover) seem to disagree!
Posted on 19. Dec, 2013 by Danny Hyde.
Due to Cambridge’s division of the defense from the graduation, Lee was unable to provide us photos of the occasion, although, this grainy photo of him taking a “selfie” was obtained from an unidentified source:
Posted on 10. Dec, 2013 by Danny Hyde.
Posted on 10. Oct, 2013 by Ryan McGraw.
Below are links to reviews of two excellent books on Reformed orthodoxy. The first is edited by our own Mark Jones together with Michael Haykin. It treats some of the primary controversies among Reformed thinkers in seventeenth century Britain. This is one of the best works that I read for my PhD thesis and I cannot commend it highly enough. Every chapter is gripping. You can read the review here:
The second link is a review of Aaron Denlinger’s outstanding work on Amborgio Catarino’s teaching on the covenant of works. Who is Amborgio Catarino? He was a counter Reformation Catholic theologian whose teaching on the pre-fall covenant may have influenced some Reformed authors in constructing their treatments of the covenant of works. This book shows how Reformed thought was complex and Reformed theologians were willing to test all things by the Scriptures, regardless of the source. You can read the review here:
Posted on 08. Oct, 2013 by Ryan McGraw.
I just learned this morning that my book on the Sabbath (The Day of Worship) has gone into a second printing. I rejoice and thank the Holy Spirit for the extent to which he has blessed this work already. I wrote this book because the Sabbath is a great weak point in modern Christianity. Sabbath breaking is indicative of far greater and more fundamental deficiencies in our Christian lives. Put more positively, God has designed the Sabbath to stretch our spiritual muscles, to make us long for heaven more fervently, to practice self-denial, to flee worldliness, and to better equip us to keep all of the rest of God’s commandments. The Lord’s Day is one of the best means in the Christian life to help us focus on the central realities of the life, death, and, especially the resurrection of Christ. It declares the Father’s love to us openly and it is to our spiritual detriment that our worldly employments and recreations have so come to dominate our lives that we refuse to suffer persecution for Christ’s sake by honoring his holy day.
I believe that the triune God blessed the writing of this book beyond my natural abilities. I praise him for using it thus far. I have prayed, and I still pray, that the Lord would use this book as one means among many to bring true revival to his church. Since RHB does not indicate or advertise when a book has been reprinted, there is a link to the book below. If this issue is dear to your heart, then please pray for the book and tell others about it.
Posted on 06. Sep, 2013 by Ryan McGraw.
The Church today needs greater personal holiness among her members. For this reason, Joel Beeke and I are co-editing a series on Cultivating Biblical Godliness. I have advertised this in previous posts over the past two weeks. Below are a list of the first four titles that we plan to publish through Reformation Heritage Books in early 2014. Please join us in prayer that the Lord would use these booklets in order to promote revival in the church as the Spirit blesses the writing and reading of them. Keep an eye out for them through RHB and help spread the word.
How Should Teenagers Read the Bible? (Joel Beeke)
What is a Christian? (Ryan McGraw)
How Should I Love God? (Maurice Roberts)
How Should I Kill Remaining Sin? (Geoff Thomas)
Posted on 30. Aug, 2013 by Ryan McGraw.
Last week, I announced that Joel Beeke and I will be c0-editing a series of booklets entitled, Cultivating Biblical Godliness. The Lord has already begun to bless us with useful topics and godly authors. Below is a short list of a few authors and subjects that we have confirmed for this series so far. Keep an eye out for the first installations of this series in early 2014 and pray that the Lord would use it to revive and strengthen His church and her witness.
What is a Christian? (Ryan M. McGraw)
How Should Teenagers Read the Bible? (Joel R. Beeke)
How Should I Love God? (Maurice Roberts)
How Can I Kill Remaining Sin? (Geoff Thomas)
What are the Benefits of Biblical Church Discipline (Albert N. Martin)
What is Experimental Calvinism? (Ian Hamilton)
Why is Friendship Important? (Michael Haykin)
How do I Practice Self-Denial? (Ryan M. McGraw)
How Do I Lead my Home Through Office Bearing? (Joel R. Beeke)
What is Better than Miracles and More Important than Preaching? (Ryan M. McGraw)
How does the Trinity Affect my Life? (Michael Haykin)
How Can I Profit from Public Worship? (Albert N. Martin)
Is Church Membership Biblical? (Ryan M. McGraw/Ryan A. Speck)
Posted on 26. Aug, 2013 by Ryan McGraw.
“God’s Spirit must fill the sails of our ministry. It is not that scatters the seed which makes it spring up, but the dews and influences of heaven. So it is not our preaching, but the divine influence of the Spirit that makes grace grow in men’s hearts. We are but pipes and organs. It is God’s Spirit blowing in us that makes the preaching of the Word by a divine enchantment allure souls to Christ. Ministers are but stars to light you to Christ. The Spirit is the lodestone to draw you. … Oh, then pray for us, that God will make his work prosper in our hands. This may be one reason why the Word preached does not profit more, because people do not pray more. Perhaps you complain the tool is dull, the minister is dead and cold. You should have whetted and sharpened him by your prayer. If would have the door of a blessing opened to you through our ministry, you must unlock it through the key of prayer.” (Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes, 23)